"The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone" by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771

Alchemy is an ancient tradition, the primary objective of which was the creation of the mythical “philosopher’s stone,” which was said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver, and also act as an elixir of life that would confer youth and immortality upon its user.

Alchemy can be viewed as a protoscience, a precursor to modern chemistry, having provided procedures, equipment, and terminology that are still in use. However, alchemy also included various non-scientific mythological, religious, and spiritual concepts, theories and practices.

In modern usage, “alchemy” is sometimes used to mean a power or process of transforming something common into something special or any inexplicable or mysterious transmutation.

A number of circles overlapped this week. My friend Patricia is spending the month in Argentina eating, drinking, and dancing.  Pat was the person who told me to read the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  I did and she was disappointed that I didn’t really like it.

August 24th was the  birthday of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho  born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947.  I had decided this month to give the book a second chance because I was able to download (legally) a free audiobook of it read by Jeremy Irons.

I did some checking online about Coelho. I like the story that when he told his parents that he wanted to be a writer, they had him committed (briefly) to a mental institution. In 1970, he dropped out of law school and traveled all over South America, Mexico, Europe, and North Africa. Then he worked as a lyricist for several Brazilian pop stars. He did a brief stint in jail for alleged subversive activities against the government in 1974.  In 1980, he returned to Europe, and walked the entire 500-mile Santiago de Compostela (The Way of Saint James) route first trod by pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

“It was then that I, who had dedicated most of my life to penetrate the ‘secrets’ of the universe, realized that there are no secrets. Life is and will always be a mystery.”

coverHe  became interested in Catholicism again after rejecting it as a young man and these experiences inspired his 1987 book, The Diary of a Magus (reissued as The Pilgrimage in 1995). Many of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, deal with themes of mysticism and religion.

The Alchemist is an allegorical novel first published in 1988.  It was originally written in Portuguese and has since been translated into 67 languages making it the Guinness World Record for most translated book by a living author with more than 65 million copies in more than 150 countries, becoming one of the best-selling books in history.

I checked some reader reviews on GoodReads for the book and they tend to be harsh.

…what happens when you put The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Bible and 1001 Arabian Nights in a blender?

like The Little Prince… but seriously, anyone that thinks these two are even in the same league is mistaking simplicity for profundity. Sure. Both are simplistic stories about emotional and literal “bildungsroman” but while The Little Prince is deft, clever, enormously profound without being even the slightest bit heavy-handed…The Alchemist is exactly the opposite. It’s clumsy, over-wrought, and not just trite, but repeatedly and gratingly so.

Amazon says that people who buy this book also buy The Journey to the East which is a Hermann Hesse book I read in college that tells of a journey both geographic and spiritual.

H.H., a German choirmaster, is invited on an expedition with the League, a secret society whose members include Paul Klee, Mozart, and Albertus Magnus. The participants traverse both space and time, encountering Noah’s Ark in Zurich and Don Quixote at Bremgarten. The pilgrims’ ultimate destination is the East, the “Home of the Light,” where they expect to find spiritual renewal. Yet the harmony that ruled at the outset of the trip soon degenerates into open conflict and each traveler finds the rest of the group intolerable and heads off in his own direction.

coverOne complaint about The Alchemist is that while it is praised for its fable-like simplicity, some say that’s because it is just a retelling of a fable  – “The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream” (Tale 14 from the collection One Thousand and One Nights. (Coelho does not credit this source text.)

The book is not subtle. The lessons are made clear including the often repeated “The Soul of the World”, or “The Personal Legend”, and “Follow Your Heart” phrases.

A reader even compares it to the Ayn Rand-like individualism of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

“Good luck shines on those who are following their Personal Legend.”
“Omens are the Language of the World. Learning to read them is communicating with the Soul of the World and the hand that wrote all.”
“All things are one.”
“Listen to your heart, it speaks in the Language of the World.”

There is an alchemist in the book. A modern day Englishman who seeks the philosopher’s stone. That is the legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals (lead, for example) into gold. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality.

Many readers know the term from J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The title was changed in America to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone since, apparently, Americans would be turned off by the word philosophy but interested in sorcery. Uh huh…

For many centuries, that stone it was the most sought-after goal in Western alchemy. It is the central symbol of alchemy, representing perfection and enlightenment.

The quest to find it was known as the Magnum Opus.  According to legend, the 13th-century scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus is said to have discovered the philosopher’s stone and passed it to his pupil Thomas Aquinas, shortly before his death circa 1280. Magnus does not confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, but he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by “transmutation”

Based on Coelho’s website and blog, it seems that his influences are Khalil Gibran, Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges and Jorge Amado. The Gibran influence seems most obvious for The Alchemist.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, is a similar kind of book. Published in 1923, it has been translated into more than twenty languages, and the American editions alone have sold more than nine million copies.

It is a collection of poetic essays that are philosophical, spiritual, and inspirational. It was a book often seen in students’ hands during the 1960s along with the Hesse books like Siddhartha. Gibran’s 28 short chapters cover love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, housing, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. It’s an easy-to-read guide to everything.

In 2006,  Paulo Coelho traveled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella in 1986. He held surprise book signings along the way. His 90 day pilgrimage took him around the globe.  It was then that he launched his blog Walking the Path – The Pilgrimage to share with his readers his impressions. Since then he has increased his Internet activity using WordPress, Myspace,  Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. I appreciate that he is perhaps the first best-selling author to actively support online free distribution of his work.

So, did I identify with Santiago’s pursuit of his “Personal Legend” the second time around? Well, listening to it on my evening walks did put me in a better frame of mind for the message. I still thought it was weak that we find that Santiago does reach his “Personal Legend” in a brief epilogue. Spoiler alert: the treasure he sought all along turns out to be… literal treasure of the gold, diamonds and jewelry variety. That ruined any message that came before.

For a book that relied on symbols and omens and their importance, how does that ending work?

So, I am not in the group that loves this book and finds it inspiring. It was a nice read but no more.

If I was Santiago, I would have stayed with Fatima in the oasis.

But the book is a kind of industry. There is a Graphic Novel version, and a film is being made.

If you read the book for the alchemy, you’ll be disappointed. Translations of classical alchemical literature were published throughout the early nineteenth century and many continue to be reprinted today. But today, the books generally support spiritual interpretations rather than anything resembling science.

New Age followers and radical environmentalists, Rosicrucians and Freemasons have a continued interest in alchemy and its symbolism. In Ayurveda, the samskaras are used to transform heavy metals and toxic herbs in a way that removes their yosi. These processes are actively used to the present day. And 20th century spagyrists Albert Richard Riedel and Jean Dubuis merged Paracelsian alchemy with occultism, teaching laboratory pharmaceutical methods. The schools they founded, Les Philosophes de la Nature and The Paracelsus Research Society, popularized modern spagyrics including the manufacture of herbal tinctures and products.